dog psychology

Citizen science mirrors quite a lot about what research has discovered.

I receive numerous emails from all over the world containing extremely interesting stories and questions about “all things dog,” many of which center on the cognitive and emotional lives of our homed canine companions and dogs living other lifestyles. I also have many conversations at cocktail parties, dinners, and coffee houses, and with people walking leashed dogs, walking or hiking trails where dogs can run free, and hanging out at dog parks that center on the same topics. I’m big a fan of all sorts of “citizen science,” and it’s well known that stories and questions from “non-credentialed” casual and serious observers are important for supporting what we already know or think we know and for motivating future research.

In an essay that’s available online for free by Laughlin Stewart and 13 dog-savvy colleagues, called “Citizen Science as a New Tool in Dog Cognition Research,” we read:

“Family dogs and dog owners offer a potentially powerful way to conduct citizen science to answer questions about animal behavior that are difficult to answer with more conventional approaches… this analysis suggests that in the future, citizen scientists will generate useful datasets that test hypotheses and answer questions as a complement to conventional laboratory techniques used to study dog psychology.”

They base their conclusions on an analysis of data provided by 500 citizen scientists. 

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Here are some stories that raise interesting questions about why dogs do what they do and what they’re thinking about and feeling. They all bear on well-accepted and science-based data about what’s happening in their very active brains and support the conclusions of Laughlin Stewart and his colleagues. They’re also all related to questions that are being pursued in formal research by researchers working in dog laboratories and with free-ranging dogs around the world. 

What was Zoey thinking as she had an “aha!” moment and tricked Jett “right out of their treasured toy?”

Here’s a story one of my friends and cycling partners sent to me. Heather, who knows lots about dog behavior, told me that two of her dogs—a 50-pound standard poodle named Jett and a 15-pound mini-poodle mix named Zoey—love to play with a squeaker. However, they don’t play with a toy with a squeaker in it, but rather the squeaker itself.

Jett guts every squeaky toy she gives them and then runs around with the squeaker. The two dogs take turns with the squeaker. Jett squeaks it for a while, and then, when he puts it down, Zoey squeaks it for a while. They both want it, and I’m told it’s the highest-value object in the house, other than possibly food

The story goes that one day, Jett stole the squeaker from Zoey, and she stole it back a dozen times, after which Zoey took the toy to her favorite spot on the couch and snuggled down with it. Eventually, Zoey got distracted and jumped off the couch, leaving the squeaker toy behind. Jett immediately took it and started squeaking. Zoey tried to get it back from him in a game of tug-of-war.

When that failed, she found a discarded piece of paper on the floor, something like a direct mailer that had fallen out of a magazine. Zoey grabbed the paper and played with it right in front of Jett, tearing bits out of it and throwing it around. Jett saw her antics, discarded the toy, and went to grab the paper, which she immediately surrendered.

Zoey then grabbed the toy and jumped back onto her favorite spot on the couch with it. As Heather put it, “She tricked him right out of their treasured toy.”

I don’t know what Zoey was thinking as she consciously tricked Jett right out of their treasured toy. However, I have numerous stories similar to this one. Another similar story I’ve heard many times goes along the lines of two dogs—let’s call them Harry and Mary—eating side-by-side. One night, after Mary finished eating before Harry, she ran to the front door barking when there was no one there, and when Harry followed her, Mary ran back to the food bowls and finished what’s left.

It turns out this ploy worked around five times, after which Harry had his own “aha!” moment and said something like, “You can’t fool me anymore.” 

Marc Bekoff

Midge, who lives with Joan and Don Hobbs, also is a dishwasher foodie.Source: Marc Bekoff

Dishwasher foodies

Another story along the same lines involved Myron, a dog who loved to help his humans pre-clean dishes in their dishwasher. Myron learned that if he could get the attention of one or both of his humans, who weren’t especially happy about his dishwashing proclivities, by barking near the front door or window, they would follow him to see what’s up, and he would then race back to the dishwasher, jump in, and continue eating his dessert.

Myron also learned that if he did the same thing as the dishes were being put into the dishwasher, he could trick his humans and help them along. I’m told this ruse worked a few times, after which neither of the humans would follow Myron.

But, soon after, Myron “got it,” as one of his humans told me, and slowly would leave the vicinity of the dishwasher without showing any interest in what was in there, lie down in another room, and whine. Of course, his humans ran out to see what was up, and Myron would race into the kitchen, climb into the dishwasher, and begin feasting once again. This scheme also worked a few times.

The last story I heard was that Myron’s humans allowed him to feast in the dishwasher, but as they put it, he didn’t seem to have as much fun knowing he hadn’t fooled his humans. Nonetheless, I’m sure Myron appreciated being allowed to be a dishwasher foodie.

Conscious deception and Theory of Mind: “If I do this, then they’ll do this, then I’ll do this, etc.”

All of these stories, along with others I’ve heard, bear on discussions of conscious deception and whether or not dogs have a theory of mind (ToM). Basically, ToM “is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one’s own.”

There is good evidence that dogs and other animals, in addition to nonhuman primates, have a ToM. Something was going on in these dogs’ brains that played out in internal scheming of the sort, “If I do this, then they’ll do this, then I’ll do this, etc.”

Can leashes identify dogs?

Another interesting story told to me by my friend Karen also raised questions about what was happening in her dog Romeo’s brain. Karen asked, “Can leashes identify dogs?” and told me that when Romeo goes to doggy daycare, he often goes right to the hooks where other dogs’ leashes are hanging and responds differently according to who’s already there.

I’m told he’s seems happier and more excited when he knows his friends are there. While this doesn’t necessarily surprise me, once again it raises questions about the sorts of information Romeo and other dogs get from sniffing objects, including urine, in the absence of the dogs to whom they belong. 

Where to from here? Let’s study dogs in all sorts of different situations and celebrate their diversity

Laughlin Stewart and his colleagues conclude, “Like many other citizen science projects, our data seems (sic) to be of sufficient quality that it will help suggest where hypothesis-driven research in more conventional research laboratories can be directed to either confirm or extend findings from citizen science [28]. When used in conjunction with more conventional and controlled laboratory approaches, citizen science promises to help push the study of dog psychology toward new frontiers.” (The number is the reference given below.) All in all, citizen science mirrors quite a lot about what research has discovered and also can inform future studies. 

I look forward to future studies of the ploys about which I wrote. I fully realize that it might be difficult to replicate such situations in the lab. However, the observations clearly show that there’s more going on in dogs’ brains than many give them credit for.

I agree with Laughlin Stewart and his colleagues that we need to go beyond highly conventional and controlled studies that, while important, may in fact not allow dogs to display their full repertoire of different behaviors along with unanticipated cognitive capacities that help to provide insights into what’s happening in their brains. 

It’s also important to put to sleep overarching myths about what dogs supposedly can’t do or don’t do, and to recognize the importance of individual differences—marked diversity—among dogs. Dogs are a very diverse lot, and simply put, there is no universal dog. They are unique individuals, and that’s why it’s impossible to offer reliable answers when we don’t have details about who’s involved and the context—namely, what’s happening and where. We need to appreciate and embrace the vast individual differences in behaviorpersonality, and temperament among domestic dogs. 

The lack of detail about some common dog behaviors and individual variability is what makes studying them so exciting. While we know a lot, there’s still a lot to learn, and it seems like the more I know, the more I say, “I don’t know.” I’m told other dog researchers feel the same way. 

Dogs can be victims of partial knowledge, misinformation, and “quick” and often “cute” answers, and some of these myths become memes that spread rapidly and widely as if they’re factsBecoming fluent in dog-dog and dog-human communication is critically important, and I’m sure most, if not all, dogs would have this request on their wish list of what they want their human to do. When we learn the basics of dog behavior, and when we learn more about dogs as individuals and why they do certain things, the dogs and their and other humans benefit.

It’s a very exciting time to be interested in canine science, including what makes dogs tick, and to study their rich and deep cognitive and emotional lives. It’s essential to keep the door open to a host of fascinating possibilities, as future research and citizen science unravel what’s happening in dogs’ very active hearts and heads. 

Dogs’ “aha!” moments are a great place to focus all sorts of research projects, and I look forward to future discussions of these and other activities.

Originally published on Psychology Today and republished here with the kind permission of the author, Marc Bekoff, Ph.D.


Bekoff, Marc. Theory of Mind and Play: Ape Exceptionalism Is Too Narrow.

_____. When Dogs Play, They Follow the Golden Rules of Fairness

_____. How and Why Dogs Play Revisited: Who’s Confused?

_____. Why It’s Important (and Fun) to Study Free-Running Dogs

_____. Dogs Aren’t Hard-Wired “Love Muffins”.

_____. Dogs: The More I Know, the More I Say, “I Don’t Know”.

_____. Dogs Live in the Present and Other Harmful Myths.

_____. “Why Do People Make Up Myths and Other Stuff About Dogs?”

_____. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2018. 

—– and Jessica Pierce. Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. New World Library, Novato, California. 2019. 

Many of my essays on all things dog can be found here

Reference 28 from Laughlin Stewart et al: Bonney, R., Cooper, C. B., Dickinson, J., Kelling, S., Phillips, T., Rosenberg, K. V., et al. Citizen science: a developing tool for expanding science knowledge and scientific literacy. BioScience. 2009;59(11):977–84.

Originally published on Psychology Today and republished here with the kind permission of the author, Marc Bekoff, Ph.D.

Author’s Books on Amazon

Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do

Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible

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Marc Bekoff is professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He has published 31 books, won many awards for his research on animal behavior, animal emotions, compassionate conservation, and animal protection, has worked closely with Jane Goodall, and is a former Guggenheim Fellow. Marc's latest books are Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do and Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible (with Jessica Pierce) and he also publishes regularly for Psychology Today. Currently, Marc and Jessica are writing a book about what the world will be like for dogs as and when humans disappear (Dogs Gone Wild: Imagining the Lives of Dogs in a World Without Humans, Princeton University Press, 202?). In 1986 Marc won the Master's age-graded Tour de France. His homepage is